Beer and Pavement

When Bands Become Conventional

Posted in Pavement, Records by SM on June 1, 2010

There was this funny phenomenon back in the day when Pavement would release an album. Fans and critics would complain that they were losing their edge and making conventional classic rock records1. Part of the “problem” was that each album’s production value improved as better recording studios became accessible to the band. They moved away from their lo-fi beginnings as they recorded on better equipment with better engineers2 turning the nobs. Also, Stephen Malkmus started crafting songs instead of just throwing sounds together over the hiss of the tape. All this growth coincided with the band becoming a proper outfit3. They left day jobs and became full-time indie rockers4.

The transformation into a conventional rock band spit in the face of everything for which their fans thought Pavement stood5. Of course, complaining about a Pavement album is a right of passage for every Pavement fan6. Those who knew them from the early Slay Tracks era hated the slick sounding Slanted and Enchanted. I remember every Pavement fan I knew hated Wowee Zowee when it was released only to love it as soon as “that piece of shit” Brighten the Corners hit the shelves. The phenomena even worked retroactively. I discovered Slanted after Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain thought it superior in every way despite my obsession with the newer record. A lot of us blamed this regression on the band giving in to traditional rock band structures, becoming a conventional rock ‘n roll band.

Of course, this was all ridiculous as each Pavement album stands on its own merit, regardless of the state of the band. In fact, one could argue that they were less of a cohesive band by their farewell album, Terror Twilight despite how so many die-hard fans complained of its adult contemporary-like accessibility. Regardless, that’s the impression fans and some critics had. Punk rock ruined us all. We love sloppy, ramshackle rock bands7. They always made us feel like we could do the same thing. We couldn’t, but the fact that our favorite bands were fuck-ups made them so attainable.

Wolf Parade is a different band. They were a combination of other bands those in the underground love(d). Each member has his share of other projects with nearly as much clout as Wolf Parade. However, none of those bands ever recorded an album as glorious as Apologies to the Queen Mary. That was their debut, relegating them to careers aimed at surpassing that achievement8. Every album the members release on their own or collectively is compared to Apologies which is too bad as each album should be judged on its own merit, within its own, unique context.

The band’s follow-up was the forgettable9 At Mount Zoomer. However, had their sophomore album been the debut of another band or a piece in any other discography, it would have hailed as a great record. It just didn’t measure up to Apologies.

Now comes Expo 86, maybe the band’s most cohesive effort to date. I still can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. That’s why it’s taken me over a week to put these thoughts in a blog post. Despite my doubts, the album is good. I can’t wrap my head around it as of yet, but I’m working hard on this one10. I’m not getting that punch-in-the-gut feeling Apologies gave me, but there is a slight tingle.

Never have the writing and vocal styles of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner fit together so seamlessly. I always felt their albums were battles to see which style would win out. In the end, both would go back to their various projects dejected. There, Krug and Boeckner would find themselves again and return to the fight that is a Wolf Parade record. Not so on Expo 86. I had trouble keeping score between the two primary musicians, losing track as to who was singing and whose song they were hacking. The album fits itself from beginning to end. I can’t deny the cohesion11.

Then I wonder if this is a good thing. Should I not only feel that punch in the gut but also that slap to the face? Apologies grabbed me from the opening beats. It took me to the woodshed and had its way with me. I was hypnotized despite its uneven, two-pronged attack. Of course, the cohesion on that album was somehow created from Isaac Brock’s production in which he stripped both Krug and Boeckner of their identities…but I digress12.

Expo 86 is, at the very least, worth several listens before writing it off. Some will complain about its mediocrity, that it’s neither good nor bad.

At its very best, it’s a challenging album that takes time to appreciate, an album that stays in the rotation because it’s too interesting to dismiss and thought-provoking enough to garner discussion and debate.

Either way, the transformation of Wolf Parade into a conventional, cohesive band is having an effect. Expo 86 might not be the end of this story. It might just be the beginning. The direction the band takes from here will be telling as to whether this move toward a conventional rock band is a good or bad thing. For me, Expo 86 will appreciate if the conventional turns out to be the same thing that drew me rock ‘n roll in the first place13. However, this development might just give me fodder to complain about each successive album, only appreciating the previous release once Wolf Parade releases another. Then, maybe Wolf Parade will be a lot like Pavement.

1Which is so laughable in retrospect. Pavement couldn’t make a classic rock record of they tried. And besides, what the hell is “classic rock”? I feel like it used to be the Beatles, Stones, maybe Zeppelin. Now it’s as if every hair metal band from ’83 is classic rock. Classic rock might be the worst moniker for a genre of music this side of indie, crunk, and slow-core.
2Sorry, Gary Young. You were a shitty drummer, gymnast, and record producer. Pavement was better off without your burnt-out California, gun-toting, plant man shtick.
3And by “proper”, I simply mean that they practiced a bit before they toured, maybe rehearsed before recording. I don’t think they ever all lived in the same city at the same time. Pavement might be more proper than ever just by simply doing this reunion thing.
4I believe that I read somewhere that Bob Nastanovich actually left another day job in order to join the reunion. He was maintaining some horse racing database or something.
5The emphasis should be on the what the fans thought here. I don’t think that it was ever Pavement’s collected stance to abstain from becoming a real band. They certainly toured a shit-ton in the mid-nineties and played nice with some alt-rock luminaries (sans Smashing Pumpkins, but who played nice with that asshole Billy Corgan?). Pavement were a vehicle for their fans to reject anything conventional even though the band was a pretty conventional rock outfit for the most part – dudes with guitars played loudly.
6Just wait for all the blog posts from their upcoming summer dates around the country.
7See Black Flag who was hated by their own fans once they started incorporating metal riffs and grew their hair long. Of course, we’re all thankful Henry Rollins stuck with the dirty gym shorts and didn’t discover spandex.
8Another band who did this but has failed miserably in trying to attain the same heights as their debut is Interpol. Turn on the Bright Lights is as perfect a debut as there has ever been, but when when the following two duds are taken into consideration. I haven’t heard the new Interpol record. I think it’s safe to say that it will be a dud as well.
9I only use this term because no one ever remembers this record. It had a really bad cover and strayed far from Apologies, ironically making a sound much closer to what the band members intended for their first go-around.
10I’m still listening to it constantly, trying to piece together a coherent thought beyond the coherence of the record. Is that coherent? Coherently coherent?
11Or overuse the term, apparently. That, I guess, is a characteristic/flaw of my writing. I’m redundant and use the same word over and over, in case you haven’t noticed. Good thing I don’t do this for a living.
12That’s what the footnotes are for. I actually really love what Brock did to Wolf Parade. A synth-heavy debut would have come off contrived, pretentious. Looking back, it’s actually quite surprising Brock stripped the music down so much considering his tendency to overdo it. Somehow, he made it work but at the cost of what makes the individual parts of Wolf Parade so amazing. A good topic to debate would be whether Isaac Brock ruined Wolf Parade or did he make them great?
13You know, rebellion, your parents hate it, has a good beat, danceability, etc.

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23 Responses

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  1. wallernotweller said, on June 1, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    my thoughts of their reunion show:

    • builderofcoalitions said, on June 1, 2010 at 12:44 pm

      Thanks for stopping by. Your review sort of refutes the idea Pavement ever has or will ever be a proper band, buy I’m OK with that. Either way, it’s nice to read some fan perspective on this tour.

  2. DVD said, on June 1, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    this is weird, a friend just gave me my first Pavement album (brighten the corners) like 2 days ago, now a different friend (no connection to the first) links me here. my interest is piqued, guess i’ll give Pavement a listen.

  3. Zach B said, on June 2, 2010 at 12:53 am

    Did you ever listen to those Atlas Strategic albums I sent you?

  4. Steve said, on June 2, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Love the footnotes!

    “I believe that I read somewhere that Bob Nastanovich actually left another day job in order to join the reunion. He was maintaining some horse racing database or something.”

    I’d read that the tour is so long as they are trying to clear Bob’s gambling debts. Not sure how much truth there is in that, but thought I’d throw it out there…

    “And besides, what the hell is “classic rock”? I feel like it used to be the Beatles, Stones, maybe Zeppelin. Now it’s as if every hair metal band from ’83 is classic rock. Classic rock might be the worst moniker for a genre of music this side of indie, crunk, and slow-core.”

    Brilliant, and so true. Classic rock is music listened to by people who don’t really like music.

    • doublewordscore said, on June 4, 2010 at 8:47 am

      Going to respectfully disagree with the “Classic rock is music listened to by people who don’t really like music” thing. I like music, and some of the stuff I happen to like is 1970’s mainstream rock. QED.

      • builderofcoalitions said, on June 4, 2010 at 9:09 am

        I think the issue might be that many of those who listen to “classic rock” just like the aesthetic but really aren’t very knowledgeable when it comes to music. Sure, there are some great “classic rock” (whatever that is) records, but the fans of such a genre/radio format are not always the truest music fans, present company excepted.

      • Steve said, on June 7, 2010 at 4:51 am

        It was a little bit of a glib comment – I didn’t mean it entirely seriously! I guess it comes from encountering many people who will follow the herd and buy whatever anyone else likes, or lack the imagination to try out something different. It’s an easy, and often lazy, choice.

        There is also that breed of people who see music as a craft rather than an art. If a guitarist can fit a hundred notes into a minute they like it, even if the song itself is no good. Seeing Pavement recently, there was a guy behind me heckling them for a lack of musicianship, which to be seemed pretty bizarre, and frankly missing the point of Pavement, and indeed, music itself. Great musicians don’t always produce great music.

  5. doublewordscore said, on June 4, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I might be going all populist here, but what is a “truest music fan”? One of my coworkers is a Bruce Springsteen fan. Does it make me a truer music fan because Bruce Springsteen is nestled between Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Built to Spill on my mp3 player, compared to her Bad Company-Bruce Springsteen-Carlos Santana trifecta? Or is it a lifestyle thing–can I appreciate Springsteen on a deeper level than her because I prefer microbrews over Budweiser?

    • builderofcoalitions said, on June 4, 2010 at 10:01 am

      It depends. I think if your coworker really loves the music, thinks about the music beyond “That rocks! Turn it up!” then he/she could be a “truest music fan”. I’m not arguing that one’s love of Van Halen over Pavement is wrong (although it is, IMHO), but to not think about music beyond aesthetic is akin to drinking whatever beer over a good craft beer.

  6. doublewordscore said, on June 4, 2010 at 10:34 am

    We’re getting into murky waters here. There are lots of indie bands that don’t have much to offer beyond the “Turn it up!” reaction. Surfer Blood put out one of my favorites this year; Girls the year before that. I don’t think I’ve ever put an ounce of thought into either except “This is catchy. I would have listened to this in high school. I dig.” That’s probably not that much different than what fans of Carrie Underwood’s latest are thinking.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on June 4, 2010 at 10:47 am

      I agree, but the difference is that you’re thinking about why you like those bands. You’re making connections with different bands. A Carrie Underwood might be able to connect her music to Patsy Cline or recognize the interesting tonal factors (or some technical shit) in her voice. They might be able to think about how her songs speak to their experiences. However, I think there are a lot of people who don’t think. That’s the problem.

      In beer, it might refer to someone like my uncle who prefers Coors and other rice-based macro-lagers because it doesn’t really taste like anything. He hated an IPA I brewed, too bitter. He likes cold, refreshing beer that doesn’t taste like real ale. That’s OK. It’s the dude who buys a case of Natty only to beer bong that bitch that’s a problem.

      Is this distinction making sense?

  7. doublewordscore said, on June 4, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    The distinction makes sense, but I still disagree. Here’s my problem with the argument. Let’s go back to the quote (with apologies to Steve; I’m not a jerk. Really. Just on summer break and looking for ways to kill some time): “Classic rock is music listened to by people who don’t really like music.” Several problems: 1) No operating definition of “classic rock.” 2) No operating definition of “really like music.” 3) Doesn’t translate to other arts/entertainments.

    Point 1 we can all agree on.

    Point 2 is where we’ve disagreed so far. It’s a slippery slope when you try to read another’s intent. I used to work with a kid with autism who had an obsession with “Top Gun.” I think it was sexual, but I’m not sure. Whatever, though: I can’t judge the kid for liking a movie I thought was manufactured and goofy.

    Re: point 3, that the argument doesn’t translate well to other media. Let’s test it out, by subbing in other arts/entertainments: “Mid-century literature is read by people who don’t really like literature.” “1970’s cartoons are watched by people who don’t really enjoy cartoons.” “Self-induced orgasms are induced by people who really don’t like orgasms.” Etc. These are admittedly silly, and when you think about it, not all that different from the obnoxious baby boomer argument that their entertainments changed the world on a deeper level than anyone else’s.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on June 4, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      I’m with you, doublewordscore. The trouble occurs whenever we generalize or use hyperbole, for sure.

      However, when I meet someone who loves, say Journey. I don’t judge them right away. Instead, I might ask him (or her, not trying to generalize here), “What is it about Journey that makes them so great?” Any answer that is vacant of intellectual reasoning (not necessarily well-spoken, just well-thought out) tells me that he is not serious about music. I’ll know that discussions about music will fall on deaf ears. So, I won’t bother.

      However, maybe he had a breakup that correlated with a Journey song. Maybe he just loves Ross Valory’s wicked bass lines. I don’t agree that Valory is a great bass player, but I can appreciate that this man loves him some Journey and actually thinks about the music to which he listens.

      And I think this does parallel other art forms/forms of entertainment. I don’t like to talk about TV shows when people just sort of like Raymond. I want to hear why Ray Ramano is the funniest man alive, even it I think it’s lame. I agree that it’s OK that your student loves Top Gun. He has thought about it deeply, no doubt. That’s cool.

      • Steve said, on June 7, 2010 at 4:59 am

        I’ve tried to answer some of this above – but of course it was hyperbole and genralisation – this is the internet, the home of such things!

        Of course many people can have a genuine love of a popular/populist genre. But it can also be a sign that they haven’t the will or interest to explore anything else. Art can come dangerously close to lifestyle extension. A CD or the latest blockbuster novel can just be an accessory, or a means of keeping up socially, rather than anything really worthwhile.

        So, I think the argument does translate to other media. If someone only reads Dan Brown books, do they really love literature? If they only watch the Police Academy movies, are they really a lover of film?

        Plus, I guess I’m a snob!

  8. builderofcoalitions said, on June 7, 2010 at 6:01 am

    Excellent points, Steve. “Following the herd” and laziness say exactly what I was thinking but couldn’t simplify.

    Your second point is dead-on as well. Calvin Johnston of Beat Happening once said something to the effect that emotion was more important than skill. Basically, the best bands find a way to make enjoyable music without the ability to noodle a la Phish or Rush. I don’t think this totally discredits “classic rock” or similar genres, but it does explain the appeal of a Pavement or early Black Flag or whatever.

    In regards to hyperbole and generalization, I’d have to agree again. I often think about what would happen if we were having these conversations in a pub. We might make a broad, hyperbolic statement that our buddies would jump all over, but we’d have a chance to explain our thinking immediately. With a forum such as this, the thoughts and ideas sit there for a while for someone to pick apart. It’s as if we were in the middle of a four-day bender at the bar, giving each guy four hours to come up with a response. We really pay for our opinions and honesty on the internet for sure.

    Again, agreed on all points. Don’t take doublewordscore’s comments too personally (not that you are). He’s a good guy and can play a good devil’s advocate. He’s always been a valuable commenter on my blogs.

    I too will accept the label “snob”.

  9. Steve said, on June 7, 2010 at 6:21 am

    Cheers, and I’m all in favour of devil’s advocates – I’ve played that role enough myself in the past!

    As for a four-day bender – sounds good to me!

  10. doublewordscore said, on June 7, 2010 at 9:06 am

    The point I was making last week was flawed in that it incorrectly assumed that the populists are being bullied by the snobs. The tendency goes both ways. There are bars (in my town anyway, but it was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool) where you know that you can’t talk drunkenly talk about how Paul Rudd is kind of hot for a guy, because in these bars people drink Coors, and this is America, last time they checked.

    I can’t identify as a snob. My personal brand profile would put me in the snob ranks, but I try to make conscious efforts not to be an elitist snob, mainly because I work with teenagers and I’d hate to scoff at a kid for finding angsty solace in the wrong band.

  11. doublewordscore said, on June 7, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Off topic, but I haven’t seen you blog about it yet: what are your thoughts on the possibility of MU moving to the Big Ten? How titillating is an MU-OSU rivalry?

    • builderofcoalitions said, on June 8, 2010 at 6:46 am

      Actually, I have a Tumblr blog called The Comian where I’ve touched on it. My feeling right now is that Mizzou will either commit to joining this week or will be stuck in a conference that does not share revenues equitably and may not even exist once the PAC 10 is done with it.

      The biggest problem for Mizzou is Notre Dame. Until they decide what to do, Mizzou (and Nebraska) are in no-man’s land or something.

      It was a brilliant idea for the Big 10 to float the idea of expansion. It forced everyone’s hand. It was an even more brilliant idea for the PAC 10 to make a play for what is essentially the Big 12 South (and Colorado). It’s a revenue sharing idea that will keep them relevant. And maybe the best idea of the bunch was when the Big 12 commissioner gave the ultimatum to Mizzou and Nebraska to jump ship by this week or commit to the conference, all for survival.

      I could go on. Maybe it will necessitate a post. I’ve said too much here already.

  12. doublewordscore said, on June 13, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Again unrelated, but you should definitely consider going to this.

  13. […] Wolf Parade’s Expo 86 is another one of those albums that disappoints, but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s more complete, coherent than previous releases and therefore is often seen as boring or conventional. I don’t know how long it will stand the test of time, but it’s here, on this list for a good reason. […]

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